Moms Demand Action Volunteers Are Turning Activism Into Political Power, 10 Years After Sandy Hook

When things were just getting off the ground, most of the work happened at small house parties. As a Moms Demand Action volunteer for a nascent chapter in Minnesota in 2015, Erin Maye Quade would stand before an audience of five to 10 people, mostly women, to talk about gun violence in America.

“I’d be there presenting, saying, ‘This is what we’re asking for,’” Maye Quade said. “It really was block by block.”

Many of those demands remain unmet, but a decade of grassroots organizing by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America chapters across the country is changing the political environment: Nearly 140 of its volunteers will bring their demands to the halls of power as elected officials.

Maye Quade herself will soon take her seat in the Minnesota state Senate, which will be newly controlled by Democrats and is primed to take up a series of gun control laws previously blocked by its GOP majority. She’ll do it as the first out lesbian and first Black mom in that chamber.

This past election cycle, 279 Moms Demand Action volunteers ran for office in 42 states — and 86 percent of them were women. Half of those who ran won their races. Around 80 volunteers were elected or reelected as state legislators; 27 won races for municipal offices; and another 13 won races for school board seats.

Just under half — 46 percent — were first-time candidates. Moms Demand Action says the program is already “building a bench of gun safety champions up and down the ballot.”

The program presents an expansion of the group’s work 10 years after its creation.

Moms Demand Action will close out its first decade this week. That anniversary will always coincide with a somber one that remains a touchstone for the work left undone: The group was founded a day after the school shooting on December 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary that saw a gunman kill 20 young children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut.

Heading into a new decade, Moms Demand Action may turn its large grassroots network into political power by pushing for the election of its own candidates. Many of those on the ballot this year got training and backing from Demand A Seat, a new program launched last year and funded by Everytown For Gun Safety, the umbrella group that includes Moms Demand Action.

Jennifer Leeper, a Connecticut state representative and mom of two boys, said that in her state, being supportive of gun violence prevention policies can be a requirement for getting elected. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, “You kind of have to be,” she said. Leeper credited Moms Demand Action for “breeding that grassroots movement of everyday people who genuinely care about this issue,” and said it was extremely helpful in building support for gun control measures.

Leeper said that she is particularly proud of the state’s “red flag” law, which allows for the confiscation of firearms from people who are deemed a danger to themselves or others.

“Those people standing up and showing up will not be ignored by politicians anymore,” said Leeper, who started participating in the Demand A Seat program in the lead-up to her reelection campaign this fall. “They want people who are going to center this issue in their work. And lead on it.”

In Michigan, nine Moms Demand Action volunteers were part of a series of Democratic victories that gave the party control of the statehouse, along with the governor’s office.

In Missouri and Illinois, two Moms Demand Action volunteers flipped seats held by Republicans on gun reform platforms. Jamie Johnson in Missouri will be the first Black woman from her county in the statehouse. Nabeela Syed, a Muslim and Indian-American woman, will become the youngest member of the Illinois legislature at age 23.

In Minnesota, Maye Quade will walk into a state Senate where the Democrats who support gun control legislation will no longer be blocked by Republicans. The state House and governorship are also controlled by the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party, an affiliate of the national Democratic Party.

Maye Quade’s seat was not one of the ones that flipped. But, she says, her election illustrates the significance of electing candidates for whom gun violence is a priority. She previously served in the state House, where in 2018, she staged a 24-hour sit-in to protest GOP inaction on gun control legislation. Now that Democrats will control the Senate, she says they will come in with momentum around gun control, and passionate advocates on the issue who can help steer proposed legislation. Three other Moms Demand Action volunteers will join her in the Senate.

“I was willing to be creative about how we could raise up the issue when we were in the minority. Now that we’re in the majority, I’m someone who knows the legislation, how to talk about it, and has been working with this group for years,” Maye Quade said.

“It really levels up our ability to pass policies. I’m not just a solid vote, but a strong voice.”

As she looks ahead to the Senate’s legislative work next year, Maye Quade said one priority is clear: “Universal background checks on all gun sales. I can’t believe it’s almost 2023 and we’re still having this conversation.”

It’s one example of the kinds of policies Moms Demand Action activists are still advocating for.

On the day a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary, Maye Quade was driving, and as the details began to sink in, she pulled over to cry. Leeper was at a school in New York City, where she was the director of the special education program. Almost immediately, the school’s culture and environment changed as new security measures were put in place.

Annie Andrews, a pediatrician who ran unsuccessfully for a South Carolina congressional seat this fall with the support of Moms Demand Action, was at work at the hospital, thinking about the horror physicians near Sandy Hook Elementary were facing at that same moment.

At the time, Andrews said the shooting devastated her, but didn’t nudge her to act. “I was deep in the early stages of motherhood at the time; I didn’t really have the space in my life to do it. Maybe that’s just an excuse,” she said.

But then came the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where a gunman motivated by racial hate killed nine people. Less than two years later, another gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida.

As she tried to process the news out of Florida, she called her state’s U.S. senators — Republicans Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott — and didn’t get much of a response. She had heard of Moms Demand Action, so she Googled to see if there was a local chapter.

“It was a busy day at the children’s hospital,” Andrews said, “but I sort of forced myself to go to that meeting.” Over the last few years, Andrews volunteered with the group, even bringing a gun safety program to the hospital to help educate patients on topics like safe storage. Earlier this year, her involvement with the Demand A Seat program turned into a campaign for South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District against Republican Rep. Nancy Mace, centered on gun control.

She said the Demand A Seat program is offering support to “non-traditional candidates, specifically women” to enter the political arena. “We need more — more moms of young kids who care about the issue of gun violence.”

Mace voted against the federal gun safety measure signed into law this summer, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Andrews lost her race but said that her challenge spotlighted Mace’s positions on gun control, and sparked important conversations about gun violence in the Deep South district.

“We haven’t had this huge watershed moment at the federal level that a lot of us are waiting for. But there have been so many small wins. We have this powerful organization of volunteers behind this issue that is going to continue to build, ” Andrews said. “So, I think so much has changed since Sandy Hook. We have so much further to go.”

Originally published by The 19th